Archive for Herbalists

Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

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Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

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Dandelion week: the bite of the lion’s tooth.

Like I said yesterday, dandelion’s old common name is “pissabed.” So we know it’s had a long and intimate relationship with the human urinary tract. But dandelion is so much more than a simple diuretic.

Nicholas Culpeper was on the right track in his 1653 Herbal (1814 edition):

It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them . . . it opens the passages of the urine in both young and old; powerfully cleanses imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them.

So my favorite technical word for dandelion is not diuretic but “deobstruent”: Dandelion opens what is blocked.

Now, don’t go running around giving dandelion to everyone who feels sluggish, stuck, or constipated—a lot of those people are “cold” or depleted, and dandelion is for sluggishness associated with heat and excess (the Chinese say “fire poison”). Dandelion is especially good for heat associated with dampness or “bogginess”—think Mississippi Delta on an August evening.

So dandelion opens what is blocked, cools what is irritated, and drains what is soggy.

But don’t forget that dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion. Each part—root, leaf, and flower—works differently. (Hint: This is tomorrow’s topic.)

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The importance of recuperation: my own bad example.

I’m not a very good patient. That is, I’m not very patient.

When someone else is sick, I make them a nest in front of the fire, bring them chicken soup and tea, and make sure they have everything they need so they don’t have to get up or do anything.

When I’m sick, well, I get antsy. And it doesn’t do me any good.

So last week when I was getting over that last-gasp-of-winter virus, I should have been taking it easy. But Monday night I stayed up late doing research, and Tuesday morning I skipped breakfast and ran out the door to a meeting. As it happened my meeting was at a cafe that served nothing but awful, spongy muffins and “scones.” I didn’t eat any real food until maybe 2pm.

By that evening, I was already coming down with a second cold, worse than the first. So did I cancel my dinner plans on Wednesday so I could rest? Of course not. Was I even sicker on Thursday? You betcha.

Thursday I tried to take my own good advice: I drank tea all afternoon and went to bed early. Friday I felt so much better that I went to dinner at a friend’s house. Which turned out to be too much. This morning I felt awful.

And would you believe I almost didn’t cancel my trip to Montreal this weekend? Ridiculous.

So here I am, in front of the fire, drinking homemade lamb broth and remembering that most basic of old-fashioned cures: convalescence.

Our great-grandmothers knew the power of rest. So many of us these days just want to swallow our pills and get right back at it. But that’s not how the human ecosystem works. If we’re depleted by an illness (or some other stress) we need time to recuperate. And we need to be slow and careful as we “get back at it.”

On that note, I’m off to bed. Goodnight!

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Winter skin care: green tea moisturizing cream.

Green Tea Moisturizing Cream

Since the temperature dropped a week or two ago, my skin has been painfully dry.

I don’t generally like to use store-bought lotions and creams because almost all of them (even “natural” brands) have weird ingredients in them: drying alcohols, toxic preservatives, etc. And the ones that have good ingredients tend to be way too expensive for me. So I make my own.

This week I made a thick cream based on coconut oil (Cocos nucifera), green tea (Camellia sinensis) and oats (Avena sativa). It’s a rich moisturizer—the oats and green tea are soothing and healing, and the coconut oil forms a barrier that protects skin from harsh weather.

This is how I made it.

1. Melt 3-4 tablespoons of grated beeswax with 1/2 cup of coconut oil and 1/2 cup of grapeseed or other skin-friendly liquid oil (more beeswax makes a thicker cream). When it’s thoroughly melted, pour the oil mixture into a blender and let it cool completely.

2. Make a strong infusion from 2 tablespoons green tea and 3/4 cup almost-boiling water (don’t use boiling water on green tea; it destroys some of the medicine). Let it steep for 5 minutes or so. Then pour it through cheesecloth or muslin and wring it out. You should have about 1/2 cup of strong tea.

3. Simmer a small handful of oats in 3/4 cup water for about 10 minutes. Let it sit for a while (at least 1/2 hour). Strain. You should have about 1/2 cup of oat water.

4. Mix the oat water and the green tea together. These are your “waters” (as opposed to oils).

5. When both the oils and the waters are completely cool (it’s easiest to just wait until the next morning), put the waters into a pitcher or another container that’s easy to pour. Then get the blender going on its highest speed and pour the waters in a slow, steady stream into the center of the blending oils. When you’ve almost finished adding the waters, pay close attention. When the cream is ready, the blender will start to sputter and choke a little bit. When this happens, turn the blender off. Your cream is done. You can stir it more by hand if you like, but if you beat it too much it might separate. (This is also a good time to add a few drops of essential oil if you want to scent your cream. I used 5 drops of grapefruit oil.)

6. Scoop the cream into jars, and store it someplace cool. (Since it doesn’t have any preservatives in it, it’s a bit perishable. If you won’t be using it for a long time, you can store it in the refrigerator.)

You can vary the recipe in all sorts of ways, but make sure you have 1 cup each of oils and waters, and that they are at room temperature when you blend them. (The basic proportions of this cream are based on the recipe for Rosemary Gladstar‘s “Perfect Cream,” which can be found on Recipenet or in her many books.)

Some notes:

Because this cream doesn’t have drying alcohols in it like most store-bought creams do, it takes a few minutes to soak in. Don’t worry, your skin will absorb it.

Since this cream feels oilier than store-bought creams, people sometimes worry that it might promote breakouts. I have never found that to be the case. In fact, I’ve used it to soothe acne-prone skin with good results. But everyone’s skin is different, so you’ll have to try it and see how it feels.

New note (11 Feb): If it’s on the cool side in your house (i.e., your room temperature is below 68 or so), you might want to use less coconut oil and more liquid oil so that the final oil mix is soft enough for the blender to work with at room temperature. (The day I made this cream the wood fire in our house was really roaring.)

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Insomnia is not insomnia is not insomnia.

Difficulty sleeping comes in many forms.

Trouble Falling Asleep can be associated with tension, excess nervous energy (“heat”) or a depleted nervous system (“cold”). My favorite herbs for falling asleep are kava (Piper methysticum) for tension, hops (Humulus lupulus) for heat and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Staying Asleep is usually associated with tension or excess nervous energy (heat), but it can sometimes be related to depletion (cold) as well. My favorite herbs for staying asleep are passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for tension, peach leaf (Prunus persica) for heat and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Waking Up (aka waking up with that run-over-by-a-truck feeling) is common in people whose bodies are sluggish or depleted overall. Lymphatic and liver-supporting herbs are the thing to use here. Some of my favorites are cleavers (Galium aparine) and all heal (Prunella vulgaris) for sluggishness and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and oats (Avena sativa) for depletion. (I haven’t posted detailed indications for these herbs yet. Some of them are in Matt Wood’s book, listed below.)

Basic sleep hygiene applies in every case of sleep trouble: Dark and quiet bedroom (no TV), no caffeine/stimulants in the afternoon (or at all), good exercise (but not in the evening), good relaxing and good food.

Important: It is always best to choose herbs carefully, based on an individual’s constitution. Don’t think “valerian is good for insomnia.” Ask “Is valerian good for this person?” There is no insomnia, only a person. (If you give valerian to someone who has a hot constitution, it can have a stimulant effect; if you give hops to someone with a cold constitution, it can be depressing.) I never like to recommend herbs for anyone without seeing them and talking to them first. Again: herbs are for people, not for conditions.

N.B.: Heat/Cold and Tension/Sluggishness are part of a system of “energetics” that many herbalists use to understand human bodies and match them with appropriate herbs. Someday I will blog about energetics, but in the meantime the best introductory discussion of western-style herbal energetics that I know of is in Matthew Wood’s book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism.

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Comforting herbs.

Most of us are ready for some comfort right about now. Holiday chaos is behind us, we’ve more or less survived, and it’s time to get quiet and cozy and rebuild our reserves.

Here are indications or “symptom pictures” for some calming and comforting herbs. A symptom picture is a great way to get to know an herb better—it describes the characteristics of a person who fits a particular herb. All of these herbs could be considered nervines that are good for “stress,” but you get the best results with plants if you pay close attention to details.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa): Nervous stomach, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” someone who is passionate and intense but holding back. [Tincture or tea.]

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Agitation and insomnia with pain. [Tincture or tea.]

Catnip (Nepeta cataria): Stress stomachaches, cold headaches, overstimulation and colic in children. [Tincture or tea.]

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile): Irritability, petulance, complaining, impatience, “acting like a baby.” [Tea.]

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum and O. gratissimum): Tension with fear underneath, running on adrenaline, trying to control things. [Tincture or tea.]

Hops (Humulus lupulus): Anxiety, muscle twitching, muscle and digestive tension, insomnia. [Tincture or tea.]

Kava (Piper methysticum): Muscle pain and tension, worry, “wrapped up in knots.” [Tincture.]

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Nervous excitement, giddiness, headache. Culpeper says: “tremblings and passions of the heart.” [Tea.]

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Speedy feeling, racing heart, can’t calm down. [Tincture or tea.]

Linden (Tilia x europaea or T. americana): Heartache, sadness, palpitations, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tea.]

Milky Oats (Avena sativa): Run down and weak, drained nerves and body. Hildegard suggests oat water in a sauna for “a divided mind and crazy thoughts.” [Tincture or tea.]

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Heartbreak, grief, emotions feel out of control. [Tincture or tea.]

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Raw, in need of soothing. Hildegard: “one whose heart is weak and sad.” [Tincture or tea.]

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Racing thoughts, tremors, irritation. Tommie Bass used it to restore peace in relationships where people get irritated with each other over little things. [Tincture or tea.]

Peach Leaf (Prunus persica): Sensitivity, overstimulation, overheated, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tincture or tea.]

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Fear, anger, nightmares, physical spasms. [Tincture or tea.]

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata): Anger, headache from heat. Hildegard: “a discontented mind.” [Tincture.]

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): Pale, cold, weak, spacy, agitated, can’t sleep, can’t catch breath. [Tincture.]

Vervain (Verbena officinalis and V. hastata): Driven, perfectionist, striving, tense neck muscles. [Tincture.]

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa and L. canadensis): Been through trauma, deadened, cold, feel numb, stiff muscles. [Tincture.]

If you’re interested in learning to relate to herbs in terms of symptom pictures, Matthew Wood’s books are a great place to start. But really it’s just a question of getting to know the plants personally.

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Grandma was right.

Our great-grandmothers were right about a lot of things, but on this cold rainy day I want to talk about the most basic of grandmotherly remedies—chicken soup.

Broth is fabulous food and amazing medicine. Real broth, that is. Real broth is made from bones. Real broth is simmered for hours or even days. Real broth is so full of gelatin that it congeals as it cools. Minerals. Protein. Incredible flavor. And that’s before you add any vegetables or herbs. (For more about the wonders of broth, check out Sally Fallon’s “Broth is Beautiful.”)

We’ve been slowly getting a cold in my house this week, so we made chicken soup. Well, my boyfriend made chicken soup. And it may have been the best chicken soup I’ve ever had. Here’s how he did it:

Six chicken backs, submerged in a decent size stockpot with a [small] handful of coarse gray sea salt. We put it on the woodstove to simmer (this is Vermont and it’s October), but it doesn’t matter what kind of stove you use—just bring it to a simmer and turn it down. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Then leave it. Alone. Wander by every half hour or so to see if it needs more skimming. But other than that, don’t bother it. When the meat starts to fall off the bones, take them out, pick the meat off, set it aside, and return the bones to the pot to simmer. Leave it simmering for as many hours as you can stand it. Keep your eye on the water level and make sure the bones are always submerged, but that’s all the attention it needs. See if you can let it simmer all day long. You’ll thank yourself later.

When you’re getting close to suppertime, strain the broth. Rinse the pot and put the broth back in it. Taste it. Marvel at it. Then think about what you want to add. We usually do barley, some vegetables, and some herbs. You don’t have to be complicated. Our last soup had barley, peppers, onions, and a lot of fresh basil and garlic added at the end. Just that. And like I said it was incredible.

You really can add just about anything in your kitchen: carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, kale, collards, chard, peppers, tomatoes, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, garlic, potatoes, rice, barley, basil, thyme, oregano, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger…. But I don’t suggest using all of them together!

You can choose your vegetables and flavorings based on the medicinal herbs you want to use. This time of year, you might choose warming herbs like ginger and cinnamon and black pepper. Onions and carrots might go well with them. Holy basil and cinnamon also make a nice combination. I like garlic, and I like it strong, so I usually wait to add it until the soup is almost finished cooking. (This also preserves some of the medicinal properties of the garlic.)

So choose your ingredients. Add them to your broth and bring it back to a simmer. Taste for salt. Keep it simmering until all the ingredients are done. (Barley and brown rice take about 45 minutes, but if you use white rice or stick to vegetables it’ll be done sooner.) Taste again, season it and add any last minute ingredients. Eat. Six chicken backs make a lot of soup, but it’ll disappear fast. And it’s really best the next day.

[To make broth from the bones of your roast chicken, just put them in a pot, cover them with water, bring it very slowly to a simmer, turn the heat down and let it brew. A few hours is probably enough for chicken bones, but overnight is always better if you have the patience.]

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